"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 13, 2014

'Lady Godiva' by John Collier (Stories behind paintings)

Lady Godiva was painted in 1897 by John Collier and is in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England.


A woman sits on a horse, riding through what looks like a medieval town. The remarkable thing is that the horse is dressed better than she is - she is only clothed in her long golden hair. Happily the streets are empty.

Who is this medieval streaker?

First, history. Lady Godiva (her Saxon name was Godgyfu) was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who died in 1057. Earl Leofric was one of the powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute. Lady Godiva seems to have been a rich landowner in her own right - one of her most valuable properties was Coventry. Both Leofric and Godiva were known for their generous donations to churches and monasteries - the only reliable records of her and her husband are found in the chronicles of various religious foundations and in charters, where their pious donations are named - unfortunately most of the treasures were afterwards stolen by the Norman invaders.

But despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalizing legend of her ride told below Lady Godiva would likely be completely forgotten.

Then, the legend, which first appears out of the blue in the 13th century in a not very reliable account. In the story Leofric has been made into a tyrant; but Lady Godiva felt pity for the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Again and again she appealed to her husband, but he obstinately refused to lower the taxes. When she kept entreating him, he grew so fed up that, either with playful raillery or in a spirit of bitter jesting, he told her that he would do what she wanted "if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town." The real joke is, of course, that Lady Godiva took him at his word. She issued a proclamation that everyone should stay indoors and close the shutters before their windows, and then she rode through the town of Coventry, clothed only in her long hair and lovely tresses, which poured around her body like a veil. And thus the Lady Godiva, "with a downcast but not a shamefaced eye, looking towards the earth through her flowing locks, rode through the silent and deserted streets." Her surprised husband kept his word and remitted the onerous taxes.

Regrettably, the story of Lady Godiva's ride is almost certainly a myth. The earliest written record of it comes from one Roger of Wendover more than a century after Godiva's death, a medieval scribe renowned for exaggeration and embellished stories. Historians have looked for the origin of this legend in both pagan fertility rituals and in medieval penitential processions.

Over the centuries, the tale became sentimentalized and more erotically charged, and the victimization of the Lady Godiva became paramount - she must be a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform a humiliating act. She became - literally - "the naked truth."

It was left to Alfred Lord Tennyson, in 1842, to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world. It then became also popular with various 19th century painters and sculptors.

[Lady Godiva by Jules Joseph Lefebre,
Musée de Picardie, Amiens]

Peeping Tom. Interestingly, the Godiva legend is linked with the story of Peeping Tom - for why would Tom peep? Well, Tom was a tailor in Coventry who was the only person on town to disobey Lady Godiva's proclamation. He bored a hole in the shutters so that he might see her pass - becoming the archetypal voyeurist. In a moralistic version of the story, as a punishment for violating the injunction of the noble lady, he was "blinded by the wrath of Heaven" for his temerity in not obeying the order. A wooden effigy of Peeping Tom used to look out on the world from a hotel at the northwest corner of Hertford Street in Coventry - it seems now to stand in Cathedral Lanes Shopping Center. The eyes in this effigy are apparently blank, but that may be because the paint has worn off over the years.

John Collier (1850-1934), the painter of Lady Godiva reproduced at the beginning of this post, was a leading English artist who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style. His range of subject was broad, but he was especially successful as a portrait painter. He has been praised for his fresh use of light and color.

To conclude with a line from the Tennyson poem:
"Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear."
[Lady Godiva statue by John Thomas, Maidstone Museum, Kent, England]

The Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) wrote a symphonic poem about the Lady Godiva story - where one would perhaps expect some light music, this work is a deadly serious and at times rather harrowing - but also extremely exciting - tone poem about the fight between Good and Evil.

[all pictures from Wikipedia]